Every Thursday afternoon just before 4:30, students, faculty, staff, and community people start moving toward the chapel at Calvin Theological Seminary for a time of prayer together. These contemplative services in the manner of the Community of Taizé, planned and led by students, have become for many an important mid-week Sabbath rest that provides, as one person said, a welcome time of “beauty in simplicity.”
How does one go about planning a service in the tradition of Taizé? As with most things that appear to be simple or uncomplicated, a fair bit of planning, practice, and ingenuity are required. And since every community is different, simply transplanting one structure will not work. Here are some suggestions based on our experience.
To begin, you need to acquire the right resources, such as the assembly, vocal, and instrumental editions of both Taizé: Songs for Prayer and Songs and Prayers from Taizé (see box for details). The basic edition of Songs and Prayers from Taizé offers a short explanation of the parts of the service with some helpful practical advice. For more in-depth background information as well as daily services, consider purchasing Prayer for Each Day.
Plan the Service
The next step is to put the service together, choosing elements following the basic structure from Taizé:
- Opening Song(s)
- Sung Response
- Scripture (one or two passages that are easily understood)
- Silent Meditation
- Intercession (organized in categories; worshipers are invited to share their prayers in a short prayer, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer)
- Closing Song(s)
You can choose to follow the Scripture assigned for the day by the Community of Taizé or from a lectionary, or you can choose your own Scripture around a theme. Prayer for Each Day has service outlines that include both Scripture and prayers following the Church Year. The Taizé website provides a service outline (see box). To keep the service simple, consider using the same person to read Scripture and lead prayer, making sure that they have prepared and rehearsed both before the service.
Silence is an important aspect of contemplative prayer. It is in the silence that we hear God speak. But like any discipline it needs to be developed. Begin with shorter times of silence and allow them to grow in length and depth.
Provide a “Map” and Rehearse the Music
Consider which songs fit the context of the service. Don’t feel that you need to include a lot of instruments; adapt the music to the instrumentalists you have who are willing to play. Since there are multiple descants for most Taizé songs, the lead musician needs to prepare a plan or “map” of each song and share it with the instrumentalists. They need to know which instrument is going to do the introduction, how long the introduction is, how many times the refrain will be sung, which repetitions include the cantor, and who is playing what on each repetition. Rehearsal is necessary so that there will be no confusion or uncertainty. It is also important to keep the tempo steady between repetitions, slowing down slightly only the final time as a cue that this is the final repetition.
In “mapping” a song, begin with the congregation and piano (or organ), then add the “simple melody” (usually the first descant, similar to the sung melody), and then move on to the other variations. Though it is theoretically possible to play various instrumental parts simultaneously, the end result can be a musical muddle. The hope is that over time the instrumentalists become so familiar with each other and the music that less “mapping” will be necessary. Examples of maps are found with the three Taizé songs on pages 36–39.
Many of the songs of Taizé include music for a cantor, or soloist, who sings stanzas over the continued singing of the refrain by the people. Make sure you know how strong the cantor’s voice is and how well he or she will be heard over instruments and people singing. There is nothing wrong with having the cantor accom.
To Learn More
This website provides a great many resources (from an amazing list of languages), including the opportunity to see and hear (line by line, if desired) the music. You can also hear recordings of the community singing. Click on “Prayer and Song,” and then on “A Prayer for Today” for an entire service outline, complete with prayers and Scripture, but not music choices. See also RW 58 (December 2000), p. 42, for more information on their website.